“The first part of my life was completely ordinary for a Soviet person of my generation,” Vladimir Voinovich wrote in his 1985 book The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union. “I had not yet turned four when my father was arrested on an absurd political charge. By Soviet standards, he didn’t spend all that much time in camps, ‘just’ five years.”
Voinovich, who died recently at the age of 85, grew up to become the premiere satirist of a political system whose leaders viewed all forms of humor as seditious or at least highly suspect. His now classic two-part novel The Life and Extraordinary Times of Private Ivan Chonkin, about a forgotten soldier left to guard a plane that crashed in a remote location during World War II, lampooned not only the Red Army but also the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) and bungling provincial officials. Readers felt an instant kinship with and sympathy for its very ordinary, at times hapless, protagonist.
Although Voinovich had started publishing his poetry while he was still completing his military service and then wrote about 50 popular songs, the first installment of his Chonkin novel marked his downfall as an “official” writer. He realized he would never get it published in its original form in the Soviet Union unless, as he put it, he abandoned his principles “of honor and conscience.” Instead, it began to circulate in samizdat, the copying and distribution system set up by dissidents, and he sent it for publication in the West in 1973.
By then, Voinovich had become an open dissident himself, signing petitions in support of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and others who were challenging Kremlin censorship. Sent into exile in West Germany in 1980 and stripped of his citizenship, he continued writing and reveled in the quirks of fate that would soon change his status once again. Mikhail Gorbachev restored his citizenship in 1990, and he was welcomed back to his homeland where he was hailed as a literary icon. He subsequently lived mostly in Moscow but returned frequently to Munich.
Aside from his Chonkin saga, Voinovich will be remembered especially for his books like The Fur Hat, The Ivankiad, and Moscow 2042 that also deftly ridiculed the pretensions, paranoia, and bureaucratic idiocies of Soviet life. Handled differently, his subjects may have made for grim reading. Not so with Voinovich’s novels. His readers always found themselves entertained, recognizing the ring of truth in his every satirical exaggeration—and they all had favorite anecdotes that they relished.
Mine was the one where his protagonist gets on a domestic provincial flight on a rickety Aeroflot plane and looks around to see if any foreigners are aboard. If the plane goes down and there are foreigners aboard, he figures, the authorities will have to report the crash. If not, his relatives will never know how he perished; after all, the lives of Soviet citizens were always expendable. On my subsequent domestic flights in the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet era, I found myself looking around and sometimes wondering whether just one foreigner aboard—me—would be enough to qualify.
After his return to Russia, Voinovich was encouraged by the collapse of communism and the opportunities provided by the removal of overt censorship. But by 1995 when I asked him to sum up his impressions of the new era, he was quick to point out that the mentality of people doesn’t necessarily change as fast as the political upheavals might suggest. “The Soviet system has ended but Soviet people remain,” he said. “The people on the streets are Soviet and they will be for a long time.”
That made him anxious, too, about the general direction of the country—and even about how he should approach his own work. In the previous era, there was only one subject of satire—the Soviet system. It was much more challenging to be a satirist in a period when everything was in flux. “It’s very difficult to write a novel about a shipwreck when you are on board the ship,” he told me. “Or to paint a picture.”
But write—and, yes, paint—he did. In fact, he found solace in his newly discovered talent for painting, especially when he was struggling to find the right subjects to write about. He was also struggling with the growing recognition that Vladimir Putin was taking advantage of the “Soviet” instincts of many of his citizens to push the country backwards, rolling back many of their short-lived freedoms to impose his brand of authoritarianism.
In an interview last year with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voinovich rejected the notion that today’s Russia can be compared to the Stalin era when people like his father were sent to the camps for no apparent reason. But he added: “I would say that we haven’t reached 1937 yet, but we have definitely reached the 1970s.” He was alluding to the long “era of stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev. That meant, he noted, that Russia is looking backwards instead of forward. “Our country just looks ridiculous in contrast to other civilized countries,” he warned.
Still, he always professed himself a “cautious optimist” about Russia’s future. He claimed that Russians—especially the younger post-Soviet generation—have acquired a taste for a more open system with a freer lifestyle, and they are unlikely to tolerate a Putin-style “era of stagnation” indefinitely.
But in Soviet times, as Voinovich also would have pointed out, there was the saying that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. In that sense, Voinovich remained both an optimist and a pessimist. Which is why his works resonated—and will continue to resonate—so strongly with his fellow countrymen.